A recent study identifies Illinois as a nationwide leader when it comes to clean electricity transition and climate policy related to economic development — a status due, in part, to nuclear power — but says the state has work to do when it comes to transportation, building development and industry support.
The study, released by clean energy advocacy nonprofit RMI, is a scorecard that evaluates six states based on various sectors: economywide, electricity, buildings, transportation and industry. The states were chosen because together they make up 20% of the entire country’s carbon emissions output.
“They can be real leaders in taking the weight for the U.S. They’re sort of our leading vanguard,” study co-author Jacob Corvidae said. “We think Illinois is really critical to what’s happening to the whole country, and we’d like that leadership to continue.”
The study asks, “Where do we need to be by 2030?” and answers it using a simulator that estimates the environmental, economic and human health impacts of climate and energy policies. Climate objectives across states commonly are set for 2050 as well, but Corvidae said that’s too far away, and RMI’s study aims to bring goals closer.
RMI’s score cards look at a combination of where states are today and where their current policies will get them.
In Illinois, the state is looking to get 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, as well as reach 40% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2050. Clean energy is power that doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, while renewable energy is power from sources that can be replenished naturally.
Corvidae said Illinois is a front-runner in terms of clean energy transition because the majority of our electricity comes from a zero-emission source: nuclear power plants, which don’t produce any greenhouse gases.
Illinois gets a much larger percentage of its electricity from nuclear power than other states and therefore relies on it more to reach carbon-free climate goals. As part of the massive climate legislation package that lawmakers passed last fall, the state agreed to pay up to $694 million over five years to keep a handful of nuclear plants open.
Nuclear energy is not a source that everyone agrees on as a long-term solution, because of waste and other hazards, but proponents say nuclear power is the best option in terms of cost and reliability.
“They’re talking about 40% renewable energy by 2030, and we’re not really very close to that, and there’s not a lot of assurance that we’re going to be able to make that,” said Alan Medsker, the Illinois director for advocacy group Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. “(Nuclear) is as clean as we have.”
Despite being emissions-free, nuclear power is not considered a renewable energy source, though the subject is a point of debate among scientists.
While Illinois is doing better than many other states on the clean energy front, Corvidae said the state falls behind others in three sectors: buildings, industry and transportation.
Statewide, the current priority is carrying out the climate legislation passed last year, said Samira Hanessian, the energy policy director at Illinois Environmental Council.
“As part of that massive, massive bill, we are shifting over from the passage to now the implementation,” she said.
Hanessian said there is a lot of ongoing work with both the state and industry partners to ensure that policy is being rolled out equitably and efficiently, such as working directly with businesses to move toward developing viable long-term jobs in renewable energy.
She added, because the bill is so large, there also have been some technical fixes needed as new initiatives come down the pipeline.
On a smaller scale, there is opportunity for local change to make a big difference, Corvidae said, particularly with transportation.
In this sector, the climate focus is how to make the transition to electric vehicles happen faster, as well as how to make it easier for people to get around without a car in general.
Corvidae said cities and towns can boost electric vehicle charging, and take steps to improve public transportation and to make their communities more walkable and bikeable.
Illinois is the fifth-largest energy-consuming state in the nation, and its transportation sector takes up the largest share of its carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
There’s a range of improvements that the state, municipalities and public transportation organizations can consider to ease our reliance on cars, according to Jim Merrell, the advocacy director at Active Transportation Alliance.
“On the local level, it’s redesigning our roadways so that they’re welcoming and friendly for people and make it easy and convenient to walk, bike and use transit,” Merrell said. “That’s things like bike lanes, crosswalks and narrowing roadways to reduce speeding.”
Merrell said there also needs to be land use policy that works in tandem with these types of initiatives, because they’re less effective if municipalities approve housing developments in locations without access to walkable and bikeable infrastructure.
Merrell said what a lot of people in the suburbs might not realize is that the state controls many of the larger, busier roadways, such as Algonquin Road and Northwest Highway.
He said, in addition to making sure local communities follow best practices in terms of “complete streets” — designing roadways for everyone who’s using them and putting pedestrians at the top of that hierarchy — the state plays a large part, as well.
The state’s policy promoting this type of roadway development is full of loopholes. It enables the state to prioritize moving cars as quickly as possible over more important goals of promoting alternative modes of transportation that “make for safer, healthier and more sustainable communities,” Merrell said.
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see https://www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/daily-herald-4/.
Read More: Illinois is leading in clean electricity, but it’s falling behind elsewhere, study says